It can become quite tempting to feel a little cynical about the counselling process at first. It feels a little clunky and strange. Unlike normal conversations with friends and family, it can seem that your counsellor isn’t doing very much. They’re just sitting back and letting you do all the work. At least it appears that way. There are many ways in which a therapist works and counsellors draw from a variety of counselling skills. One of the things your counsellor might do is repeat what you say. So why do they do this? The short answer is; because you have said it.
Once you have said something you have taken it out of yourself and put it in the world for consideration. So your counsellor will repeat it. Usually you will experience either one of two things at this point, or a combination of both. You might experience a sense of mild irritation or you might think, oh, when you put it like that, I guess you’re right. I did say that. I guess that means? And you will begin to think about what you said in a different way. You may even start to consider some things that you have overlooked for a considerable length of time. Thoughts and feelings come out very quickly during therapy and often before we have realised what we are saying. Repeating keywords and phrases back to you will help you clarify your thoughts and work out how you feel. This is one of the reasons why counsellors offer your words back to you in the way that they do.
Often your counsellor will repeat what you say because they are following you. They are trying to figure out what is like to be you and to have your experience. They are tracking you as you speak and they are choosing which things to reflect back to you. Therapists have lots of theories floating around in the back of their heads that inform their choices in what they reflect. You might say something like, “It happened when I was a teenager, when I was about sixteen”. Your counsellor’s brain might be going, Oh, that relates to that theory about people being in a certain life stage where they are finding out who they are and what they want to become and they might repeat back phrases you say such as, “I felt different” by saying, “You felt different”. Seems simple but it might very well cause you to reflect on what it was like to feel different back then, what you wanted to be, how you felt in relation to your friends, how you feel about yourself now and what you have become, or it might cause you to think of something completely different, something that will point you in a totally new direction and enable you to see things from another perspective.
Sometimes they might repeat what you say in a different way. They might repeat it back in their own words. You might have said something like, “He made me really angry. I felt shocked at what he did and I couldn’t see any sense in it” and your counsellor might say, “It’s clear that this really upset you. You really felt it and it made you furious! You just couldn’t comprehend why he did what he did” and you might think, Hey, this counsellor really gets me! They don’t just repeat what I say. They understand the way I feel. What I feel is real and valid and you might start to trust them more. You might begin to think something along the lines of, If they get me for that, then perhaps I could tell them about this, I’ve never told anyone about that before! And take a chance and begin to explore a new avenue of thinking and feeling and realise that what you were hiding is not quite as shocking or unacceptable as you thought it was.
It is worth mentioning here that they are not doing this in some systematic or technique driven way. They are often doing it through a combination of thinking and instinct. The more your therapist becomes attuned to your world and way of being, the more natural it becomes to pick up on the things that seem important to you and to feed back to you keywords, feelings and themes emerging from what you say. The choices they make are often a combination of theory and gut instinct; they come from knowing you.
Week by week, session by session, your therapist is building up a profile of you and consequently the things they repeat back to you become more complex or refer to previous sessions. They might say, “That reminds me of something you said last time we met” or, “Do you remember, it must have been our first or second session you said the same thing?” And you might think, oh yeah! This relates to that, oh that makes sense now! All this time I’ve been thinking? You begin to see your issues in a wider context and gain deeper clarity.
Before you know it, you are correcting your therapist and you are saying,”No, that’s not right. It’s more like this”. You are clarifying your experience by bouncing it off your counsellor’s reflections. You are becoming more aware of your issues and concerns and working your way through to gaining a fuller and more complete understanding of where you are and where you want to be.
And guess what? Counsellors don’t just repeat things back to you straight away. They even store things to give back to you at a later time. Your counsellor will be following you so intently that they will often hear you say things and not repeat them back to you immediately. They will be aware that you are going in a certain direction and that to stop you by focusing on a key word or phrase, although they might seem significant, could stop you from fully exploring the direction you are going in. Instead they will choose to store these words and phrases temporarily and offer them back to you at a later time, when it feels appropriate and more beneficial to you to do so.
Finally, there is another way on which a counsellor might repeat what you say. They might offer things back to you in the form of a summary. They might take a considered overview of all that you have told them, and give it back to you. By giving you back their understanding of what you have been saying in your own words and expressions of feeling, they will give you back a picture. The picture will hopefully enable you to gain a fuller understanding of where you have come from, where you are going, how you feel and what that means to you.
So by now you must be beginning to see why your counsellor often repeats what you say. It’s not just because they are trying to get on your nerves (even though at times it might feel that way!). It is because they are attempting to frame your experience, because they know that you know what’s going on for you and that by offering you a mirror of your thoughts and feelings you can eventually find the answers you seek.
Image © Anna Fischer